DEFRA is committed to announcing a new policy to tackle the spread and escalating cost of bovine tuberculosis in the early part of 2008, but the industry will have to pay for a large part of it, according to junior minister Jeff Rooker.
Giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee of MPs on Monday (10 December), the minister gave a hint as to what shape future policy might take although he repeated that no decision had yet been made.
And he expects DEFRA’s proposals to be controversial, and almost certainly result in a legal challenge, regardless of which side of the badger debate future policy pursues.
Lord Rooker began by saying that current policy was not sustainable and that the Treasury was not prepared to assign additional funding to tackle the disease. “The present situation is unsustainable and the cost is unsustainable. We can’t tolerate the cost that we’re paying from a taxpayer point of view. I have to make that abundantly clear to the committee and the industry, the taxpayer has come to the end of the line in funding to this scale. We have to find other directions.”
Any additional costs, he made clear, would be borne by the industry and from the re-allocation of existing funds. This, he hinted, may include a reduction in the compensation rates paid to farmers for diseased stock.
And it could be the whole industry, not just the livestock sector, that is asked to pick up the costs beyond what the Treasury is willing to fund. Much of the UK’s cereal production goes to feed the nation’s livestock, so why should arable farmers be exempt from the cost of tackling the disease? he said.
When pressed by the committee to explain DEFRA’s desire to tackle the wildlife reservoir he was deliberately vague. While he acknowledged that there was the legal means to perform a cull of badgers for disease control purposes and that the science provided sufficient justification to do so, disagreement remained as to the design and methodology of a cull and its potential value. To gain a greater understanding DEFRA is to perform a cost-benefit analysis based on farmers being issued licences and employing competent operators to carryout the work.
“The government will not be paying for any action to operate licenses other than the supervision, setting-up and monitoring, if we went down that road. We will not be employing teams like we did during the trials,” he said.
As the session drew to a close Lord Rooker made it clear to all that DEFRA considers the EFRA Committee’s report vital to future policy development. While he did not seek to influence the nature of the recommendations he made it clear that an ambiguous report that failed to consider the practical realities of controlling the disease would not assist the government in devising a new strategy.
The Committee is expected to publish its report by the end of January 2008.
NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond expressed concerns over the cost implications, but said he was relieved to hear the minister accept the role of badgers in spreading the disease.
“I was delighted to hear him say that the policy needs to change from one of trying to contain the disease to a policy of eradication.
“But I’m extremely concerned about the cost proposals. We’ve heard a great deal about partnership over the past few weeks: this has to be in partnership and we need resource. We’re going to have to put a strong case for resource.”
Badger Trust spokesman Trevor Lawson was disappointed by the minister’s comments.
“Lord Rooker effectively admitted that DEFRA is broke, so there is no cash to fix the bovine TB problem that’s being spread by cattle.
“It amounts to saying that because there’s no cash for better brakes, we may as well let the TB juggernaut thunder on and then blame badgers when it crashes.
“All the scientific research shows that most bovine TB stems from cattle-to-cattle and cattle-to-badger transmission. Yet Lord Rooker has not even bothered to cost up any options for better cattle controls: he’s simply ruled them out.
“Instead, it looks as though the government will sanction futile badger killing by farmers, as a shabby quid pro quo for cutting the expenditure on TB. The outcome will be catastrophic: bovine TB will get worse and any surviving vestiges of public support for farmers will be wiped out.”